Tag Archives: India

Tories Out: Manchester 2017

It’s been a full-on few days of action hosted by the People’s Assembly, as it should be with the Tories busy sticking knives into each other at their annual party conference as people die from their benefit cuts, sanctions, mental health cuts, NHS cuts, housing sell off and etc. That’s what my sign would have said — or some snappier version of that — had I made one. Danielle and I did a lot, though not even close to all.

Saturday night? The Dancehouse, to see much-loved Maxine Peake (OMG Maxine Peake!) and Mark Serwotka (OMG Mark Serwotka! How much do I want to be able to join PCS? Let me count the ways…), to love for the first time comedian Barbara Nice (OMG Barbara Nice!).

People's Assembly Saturday Night Live

Sunday was the protest of the Tory conference proper. It’s kind of funny, remembering back to the first time I ever visited Manchester, on a bus up from South London to protest Tory Party Conference in 2011. I confess I was a bit unimpressed with everything but the canals and the Peak of Peveril Pub — but I was here. Doesn’t feel it could possibly have been as long as 6 years ago. We could get closer to conference then, but they are still using those silver walls. 2011:

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The anti-Brexit contingent, and ‘Boris’ on a unicorn singing busily, 2016:

Protesting Tories: Manchester 2017

We headed down Castlefields way, heard Mark Serwotka again (OMG Mark Serwotka again!) speak by chance. Then we ran into Jon and the next few speakers were yawny in the way lefty men of a certain generation can be, so we took a short break for art.

Alongside us in the Museum of Science and Industry was Nikhil Chopra in the second half of his 48-hour performance art piece, performed in front of one of the engines built in Manchester, but sent to India and used during the partition. This ink drawing, a re-imagining of passage. This sleeping and camping and being in public for 48 hours — it is what refugees undergo, isn’t it, part of the horror wrapped up in horrors of this thing, being a refugee. Always in public. Always moving. Always somewhere you don’t belong. And it challenged me in watching it, the shame of being comfortable in the face of this discomfort, in the memory of this tragedy. I lowered my eyes to give privacy to this figure on the stage, then took a picture to remember the provocative nature of this intervention because after all it is ‘art’, it is a gift and a challenge thrown at us by someone who is also not here under duress. A challenge I don’t know quite how to live up to, but I hope to. Through my work around homelessness perhaps, through struggle. I don’t know if that is enough.

Nikhil Chopra

That left us pensive, subdued, strange to go back out into a crowd. But it fit. As in all damn marches we stood and we stood and we waited and we waited. I didn’t get many pictures, but a few. The highlights were absolutely the drums, I enjoyed myself, and then…we left them behind.

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It was all right, the march. They always are.

And then we had to find food and drink and wait and wait, because we had been promised Captain Ska and Lokey, and finally they were on and finally we danced. For me this was…amazing. The power and passion and incredible words and beats. Damn.

Amazing night.

I hurt the next morning. First time exercising since holiday, then a march and then dancing? Shit.

Still, I went to work. And then in the evening off to Manchester Cathedral to see John McDonnell speak in conversation with Gary Younge. Because I promised Danielle. To be honest, were it just me, I would have headed straight for bed with some Horlicks. But I went. And I was glad.

First we had some workers… From the strikers at McDonalds! so amazing, I remember my minimum wage fast food /Kmart days, I know just how amazing these folks are for carrying off a strike.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

RMT! Strike across the North East for passenger safety!

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

Careworkers! She almost had me in tears.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

Communications union — our postal workers! Anxiously awaiting ballot results when he spoke, but today we know the vote is to strike.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

And then, John McDonnell!

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

I’m sad Gary Younge didn’t get to make a speech too. But ah well, McDonnell said Labour was in full support of the workers, they would re-nationalise the trains and the post, they would fully fund the NHS and support careworkers, they would implement the living wage. I never thought, to be honest, I’d ever hear anyone in a position like that of shadow vice-chancellor ever say such things. It solved all the problems expressed earlier in one sentence.

Last time I saw him speak was in 2011 (the parallels between 2011 and 2017 are only now striking me), at the People’s Assembly in Brixton that we organised as Lambeth SOS. He was a little less formal then, but sounded just the same.

John McDonnell

I jotted down a few notes, some sound bites and I don’t even care because they were brilliant, all in response to some really good questions.I can’t swear any of these are exact quotes, so don’t quote me.

We’re not just a party we’re a movement again … if owned by the people change becomes unstoppable…

(I am a bit skeptical about whether the old left can deal with democracy and youth and people of colour and women, but, you know, I have hope).

This is not a free market but a rigged market of the 1%.

We need to wipe out UKIP.

In response to a good question about why this change is so damn long in coming and so resisted (someone yelled out Tony Blair and we all laughed because we knew it was true), he brought it on with Gramsci — the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism (also true).

Never again should we pay for their crisis.

Education is a gift from one generation to another, not a commodity.

Then he went on about a new education service, starting with sure start, a new approach that pays teachers but also respects them, support for apprenticeships, scrap tuition fees, EMA returned, debt forgiven, support for lifelong education.

And the end? I was wondering when this would come up — the focus on climate change, on developing the economy through green tech owned by workers cooperatives, on decarbonising the economy,  ending fracking. It was like the Hallelujah chorus.

A brilliant night. A night of hope. We need those, I feel privileged to have enjoyed one because it has been a very long time…

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Reading Vandana Shiva for the first time

Vandana Shiva - Making Peace With the EarthVandana Shiva is pretty amazing. She makes a radical reframing of the environmental and social justice problems we face feel effortless. You can tell she’s been talking about this a while.

The struggle of a life.

The cover looks a little hippy of course, reading it on the train I imagine few people knew that the first chapter sub-title was something like ‘Eco-Apartheid as War’. I keep trying to give up my binaries, but the simplicity and clarity of this war is good for struggle, for knowing what you are fighting for:

There are two different paradigms for, and approaches to, the green economy. One is the corporate-centered green economy which means:

(a) Green Washing – one has just to look at the achievements of Shell and Chevron on how they are “green”

(b) Bringing nature into markets and the world of commodification. This includes privatisation of the earth’s resources, i.e., patenting seeds, biodiversity and life forms, and commodifying nature….(15)

Commodification and privatisation are based and promoted on the flawed belief that price equals value…

The second paradigm of the green economy is earth-centred and people-centred. the resources of the earth vital to life — biodiversity, water, air — are a commons for the common good for all, and a green economy is based on a recovery of the commons and the intrinsic value of the earth and all her species. (17)

I didn’t need the schooling on all the death-dealing and life-destroying actions of corporations in India to agree with that, but I did need to know more about what is actually happening — what other basis can we build solidarity in struggle upon? There is much here requiring tears and rage, and so much struggle to support and learn from. In these stories from India you can see that it is a war — that is often hidden from us here in the U.S., particularly those of us in cities already far removed from the earth and how we are killing it by siphoning off and centralising all of its resources.

Since corporate freedom is based on extinguishing citizen freedom, the enlargement of “free-market democracy” becomes a war against Earth Democracy.

Since the rules of free-markets and free trade aim at disenfranchising citizens and communities of their resources and rights, people resist them. The way against people is carried to the next level with the militarisation of society and criminalisation of activists and movements. (21)

Through their struggle against this, they are blazing the way forward for all of us and we need to not just challenge any attempt to criminalise it, but support and learn from it.

One of the key things I think is this:

LAND IS LIFE. It is the basis of livelihoods for peasants and indigenous people across the third world, and is also becoming the most vital asset in the global economy… Land, for most people in the world, is people’s identity, it is the ground of culture and economy. (30)

This attachment, love, need for land and home that goes far beyond sale price is something many academics (planners, capitalists) don’t understand. This is something I am so infuriated and also fascinated by — a little more than Shiva is. But of course competing understandings of land and value and their rootedness in histories and capitalism are needed to understand the present conflict and so they are here scattered through the book. Like this:

In India, land-grab is facilitated by a toxic mixture of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894, the deregulation of investment and commerce through neoliberal policies, and the emergence of the rule of uncontrolled greed and exploitation. The World Bank has worked for many years to commodify land… (30-31)

This fundamental fact that almost no one publishing articles and books and displacing people seems to understand at all:

Money cannot compensate for the alienation of land. (31)

It goes far back, this idea that land is to be used to generate wealth — this is an amazing quote from Puritan settler of North America John Winthrop:

Natives in New England, they enclose no land, neither have they any settled habitation, nor any tame cattle to improve the land soe have no other but a Natural Right to those countries. Soe as if we leave them sufficient for their use, we may lawfully take the rest. (113)

That’s it in a nutshell really. Then there’s the East India Company, looking at land and its resources only for profit and conquest:

As Stebbing reported in 1805, a dispatch was received from the Court of Directors of the East India Company enquiring to what extent the King’s Navy might, in view of the growing deficiency of oak in England, depend on a permanent supply of teak timber from Malabar. Thus, the first real interest aroused in the forests of India originated from the colonial centre and the cause was the same as that which had kept forestry in the forefront of England through three centuries — the safety of the Empire, which depended upon its “wooden walls” — its supremacy at sea. When the British started exploiting Indian timber for military purposes, they did so rapaciously… (116)

She looks at ideas of value, where they come from:

As the ‘trade’ metaphor has come to replace the metaphor of ‘home’, economic value itself has undergone a shift. Value, which means ‘worth’, is redefined as ‘exchange and trade’, so unless somethings is traded it has no economic value…The ‘trade’ metaphor has also rendered nature’s economy valueless; the marginalisation of both women’s work and nature’s work are linked to how ‘home’ is now perceived as a place where nothing of economic value is produced.

This shift in the understanding of economic value is central to the ecological crisis and is reflected in the change in the meaning of the term ‘resource’. ‘Resource’ originally implied life…With the advent of industrialization and colonialism, however, a conceptual break  occurred. ‘Natural resources’ became those elements of nature which were required as inputs for industrial production and colonial trade.

The ways that this continues on into our worldview today:

Planners do not see our rivers as rivers of life, they see them as 20,000 megawatts of hydro-power. (92)

The ways this shifts everything:

World Bank loan conditionalities have many paradigm shifts built into them — the shift from “water for life” to “water for profits”; from “water democracy” to “water apartheid”; from “some for all” to “all for some”. (84)

The ways that this has shifted through the globalisation of capital and changing nature of corporations and profit-making is here as well, along with it’s impact on local and state sovereignty (things that most Americans never have to worry about, even as they are shifting these relationships around the world):

The Gopalpur steel plant is a product not of the “development” era, but of the globalisation era. Globalisation demands that local communities sacrifice their lives and livelihoods for corporate profit, development demanded that local communities give up their claim to resources and their sovereignty for national sovereignty. Globalisation demands that local communities and the country should both give up their sovereign rights for the benefit of global free trade. (40)

The companies making profits on land are very familiar:

Morgan Stanley purchased 40,000 ha. of farmland in Ukraine, and Goldman Sachs took over the Chinese poultry and meat industry in September 2008. Blackrock has set up a $200 million agricultural hedge fund, of which $30 million will acquire farmland. (157)

Their speculation in food is causing famine, and if you needed more than that, there’s a whole range of other evil and horrible things happening. There’s a whole lot I didn’t really know about GMOs about biofuels (instinctively you feel they must be better than oil, but think again).

At least 30 per cent of the global food price rise in 2008 was due to biofuels… (163)

On GMOs

the term ” high yielding varieties” is a misnomer because it implies that the new seeds are high yielding in and of themselves. The distinguishing feature of the new seeds, however, is that they are highly receptive to certain key inputs such as fertilisers and irrigation. Palmer therefore suggested the term “high responsive varieties” (HRV) be used instead. (141)

Genetic engineering has failed as a tool to control and has instead created super pests and super weeds, because it is based on a violence that ruptures the resilience and metabolism of the plant and introduces genes for producing or tolerating higher doses of toxins.  (148)

The peaceful coexistence of GMOs and conventional crops is a myth: environmental contamination via cross-pollination, which poses a serious threat to biodiversity, is unavoidable. (186)

On industrial production:

Overall, in energy terms, industrial agriculture is a negative energy system, using ten units of input to produce one unit of output. Industrial agriculture in the US uses 380 times more energy per ha. to produce rice than a traditional farm in the Philippines…(142)

On fertilisers, and the violence of industrial agriculture:

Fertilisers come from explosives factories. In recent years, in Oklahoma and Afghanistan, in Mumbai and Oslo, explosives factories were retooled to make fertiliser bombs. (148)

These are the fertilisers required to grow Monsanto’s crops, also required are pesticides. The violence there, apart from long terms damage to farmers and the planet and everything in the earth and water and air:

The pesticides which had created debt also became the source for ending indebted lives. Those who survive suicide in Punjab are dying of cancer. (149)

A farmer’s organisation presented information on 2,860 farmer suicides at public hearing on 8 September, 2006

All this when traditional and organic farming almost doubles the carbon sequestration efficiency, uses a tenth of the water. All this despite the reality that when we step outside the warped logics of capital, we know what’s what:

The solutions for the climate crisis, the food crisis, or the water crisis are the same: biodiversity-based organic farming systems. (154)

It is, as so many have explored, claimed, stated, based on diversity, interconnectedness, networks.

As the Knowledge Manifesto of the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture states, the following principles are now generally accepted by the scientific community: (a) living and non-living systems are all dynamically interconnected, with the consequence that any change in one element will necessarily lead to not fully predictable changes in other parts of the network; (b) variability is the basis of change and adaptation while its absence leads inevitably to death; (c) living systems actively change the environment and are changed by it in a reciprocal way. (190)

Above all this is a book of struggle, of movements fighting back and learning from them what needs to be part of this struggle:

An ecological and feminist agenda for trade needs to be evolved based on the ecological limits and social criteria that economic activity must adhere to, if it is to respect the environmental principle pf sustainability and the ethical principle of justice. This requires that the full ecological and social costs of economic activity and trade be made visible and taken into account. Globalisation that erases ecological and social costs is inconsistent with the need to minimise environmental destruction and human suffering. Localisation – based on stronger democratic decision-making at local levels, building up to national and global levels — is an imperative for conservation as well as democracy. (257)

It holds the voices of different groups asserting different kinds of knowledges and ways of being on the earth that we must now look to for the future:

We, the forest people of the world–living in the woods, surviving on the fruits and crops, farming on the jhoom land, re-cultivating the forst land, roaming around with our herds — have occupied this land since ages. We announce loudly, in unity and solidarity, let there be no doubt on the future: we are the forests and forests are us, and our existence is mutually dependent. The crisis faced by our forests and environment today will only intensify without us.
–Excerpt from the Declaration of Nation Forum for Forest people and Forest Workers (69)

The need for new structures

Self-rule of communities is the basis for indigenous self-determination, for sustainable agriculture, and for democratic pluralism. (27)

I do love how Vandana Shiva wraps it all up (something I always struggle with). I know things are always messy, but I think in a struggle like this this is the kind of clarity most useful:

Humanity stands at a precipice. We have to make a choice. Will we continue to obey the market laws of corporate greed or Gaia’s laws for maintenance of the earth’s ecosystems and the diversity of her beings? The laws for maximising corporate profits are based on:

  1. Privatising the earth
  2. Enclosing the commons
  3. Externalising the costs of ecological destruction
  4. Creating corporate economies of death and destriction
  5. Destroying democracy
  6. Destroying cultural  diversity

The laws for protecting the rights of Mother Earth are based on:

  1. respecting the integrity of the earth’s ecosystems and ecological processe
  2. Recovery of the commons
  3. Internalising ecological costs
  4. Creating living economies
  5. Creating living democracies
  6. Creating living cultures (264-265)

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The Corporation that Changed the World

15792820The answer to the implied question is, if you hadn’t guessed it, the East India Company. This is a great critical introduction to what the Company was, what it did, and how it relates to the corporate malfeasance we are so familiar with today.

Established on a cold New Year’s Eve, 1600, England’s East India Company is the mother of the modern corporation. In its more than two and a half centuries of existence, it bridged the mercantilist world of chartered monopolies and the industrial age of corporations accountable solely to shareholders. The Company’s establishment by royal charter, its monopoly of all trade between Britain and Asia and its semi-sovereign privileges to rule territories and raise armies certainly mark it out as a corporate institution from another time. Yet in its financing, structures of governance and business dynamics, the Company was undeniably modern (5).

Modern too, its insatiable greed and the split between this shareholder demand for profits and responsibility for any of the consequences.

From Roman times, Europe had always been Asia’s commercial supplicant, shipping out gold ad silver in return for spices, textiles and other luxury goods. European traders were attracted to the East for its wealth and sophistication at a time when the western economy was a fraction of the size of Asia’s. And for the first 150 years, the Company had to repeat this practice, as there was almost nothing that England could export that the East wanted to buy (7).

Essentially this is the story of how the East India Company forced this to change in search of profit. It is a harrowing story intertwined with English history in ways that this book doesn’t always tease out but bookmarks for us. For example, the literary figures who worked there, were surely influenced by their work even when not being explicit about it. Like Charles Lamb, Thomas Love Peacock, James and John Stuart Mill, James Bentham. On James Mill in particular there is this awesome anecdote:

One account describes how “when particularly inspired he used, before sitting down to his desk, to not only strip himself of his coat and waistcoat, but of his trousers, and so set to work, alternately striding up and down the room and writing at great speed.” (189)

This also connects to other histories of Empire, like one of those that fascinates me most — the evangelical project to settle Sierra Leone (read an early account here in relation to the Clapham Sect, another in relation to other trading companies here, and a later more fuller one here). I had as yet only ever heard of it as a way to resettle free Blacks from London to Africa, but here it is presented very briefly through the lens of the Lascars in London, noted because John Lemon, 29-year-old lascar and hairdresser and cook from Bengal married an Englishwoman named Elizabeth before they set off as part of the Sierra Leone expedition, surviving the passage but from there their future is unknown (21).

That is an aside however, a trail to follow. It’s almost a relief from the overwhelming anger and sadness this tale of greed inspires. Structural greed, as it’s three main flaws accoridng to Robins (and these remain unchanged today) are these, which lead to what can only be called villainy in the search for ‘immediate and excessive returns’:

  1. Executives and shareholders can pursue own profit to the detriment of all others — there is no higher purpose of the corporation.
  2. Limitation of liability frees shareholders and to a great extent executives of responsibility for their actions in the pursuit of these profits.
  3. The separation of ownership and control allows executives to pursue profit and exploit the company for their own ends.

Within this greater framework of greed and exploitation, individuals were also on the look out to make their own fortunes:

For its executives, the purpose of a career with the Company was to achieve a ‘competence’, making enough money to be able to retire and adopt the conspicuous consumption patterns of the British landed gentry. This could bot be achieved by saving from the salaries received from the Company, which barely covered living expenses. As a result, the ambitious Company man had to use his position a a platform for patronage and private trade (29).

What separated this form of corporation from the present one is primarily the risk and the power. Because the risks were, of course, much higher  — the round trip from India to London could take up to two years and there was limited communication or control possible. The East India Company also had to continually renew its royal charter, which required regularly justifying its existence outside of its investors at regular intervals.

On this other hand this royal charter allowed it to mint coin in oversees holdings, exercise justice, and the right to wage war — thus their army changed from private security to a tool for land acquisition. Robins quotes Niels Steengard as saying — ‘the principal export of the pre-industrial Europe to the rest of the world was violence.’ (44)

The history of the EIC is this its efforts to maximise its power, and to minimise risks and controls. Its impact on the monarchy was one example — after the Glorious Revolution brought William of Orange and Mary to the throne, commercial rights were high on the list of priorities in the minds of the British elite in drawing up the ‘unprecedented Bill of Rights that would bind the new monarchs’ (52).

This was matched by a long-standing and complex web of corruption and bribery in the interests of the company. Post 1688 it centered around the figure of Governor Sir Thomas Cooke, subject of a special inquiry. The sums are staggering for the time: £107, 013 paid out in ‘special services’, £80,468 to win a new charter. Another £90,000 used by Cooke to buy stock to shore up the chartering process.

A number of fortunes were made in autocratic bids to gain more power and profit — that of director Sir Josiah Child (‘Perhaps more than any other of the Company’s executives before or since, Josiah Child had demonstrated where an appetite for corporate power could lead’ (57)). The Pitt fortunes emerged, of course, from the ‘Pitt Diamond’, 410 carat rock obtained by Thomas Pitt, governor of Madras.

That would be another interesting distraction to follow. More inspiring perhaps, in terms of distractions, is the brief mention of a weavers’ insurrection in 1696, and their march on the East India House after 5,000 marched on Parliament against imports of Indian cloth. Later they ransacked and threatened homes of Company officials and very nearly sacked the Company storerooms. In view of what happens to weavers, you wish they had.

because we are about to come to the most horrifying period of the EIC’s fairly horrifying history. The period in which it caused Bengal to go from one of the richest areas in the world — hard to imagine today because it continues to be what the EIC made of it — one of the poorest.

The Battle of Plassey, 23 June 1757, is the turning point. Robert Clive attacked and defeated the nawab of Bengal, capturing Calcutta and thus ‘enabling the Company to achieve its long desired monopoly over the export trade, expanding into the internal market and appropriating the public revenues of Bengal for its own benefit’ (77).

One estimate states that in the decade after Plassey, Bengal lost 2/3 of revenues.

Bengal’s weavers were devastated — they were not rich but good evidence shows they lived and worked under much better standards of living than the weavers in England, with more control over their production terms and conditions. Any power they held over their labour was smashed. Their history says they cut off their own hands so they couldn’t be forced to work under the conditions demanded by the company. Rather than exporting cloth, Bengal began to export cotton and import cloth, devastating industry and all the lives that depended on it.

A new era of exploitation with impunity became the rule: ‘A new catchphrase entered the language — “a lass and a lakh [a lakh being Rs100,000] a day–to describe the lifestyle of the Company’s executives in Bengal’ (86).

They did not just devastate weaving, but all other systems of support and livelihood. When famine hit they continued exporting grain, and raised their taxes. I had not, until recently, even heard of this famine, this terrible murder of millions of people in 1770 (ish). Governor Warren Hastings  gave the number of 10 million, a third of the population of Bengal. A hundred years later, another famine:

Working in the midst of the terrible 1877 famine that he estimated had cost another 10 million lives, Cornelius Walford calculated that in the 120 years of British rule there had been 34 famines in India, compared with only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millenia (93).

Robins writes:

The Bengal Famine stands out as perhaps one of the worst examples of corporate mismanagement in history (97).

which seems to me to be a bit of an understatement, a bit missing the point perhaps. Besides, it depends how you define mismanagement, the point of  a corporation is to make a profit, and the EIC continued to make a profit through these years, difficult as they found it. This is the damning indictment of our times.

Robins then points out the ideological inconsistencies of corporations and their neoliberal supporters — but they are a bundle of inconsistencies. Still, it is good to remember:

Reading Smith afresh…it is shocking how his penetrating critique of the corporation has been so comprehensively suppressed. Nothing of his scepticism of corporations, their pursuit of monopoly and their faulty system of governance, enters into the speeches of today’s neo-liberal advocates. Promoting his vision of free trade, they conveniently ignore that this can only be achieved with steadfast curbs on corporate power (119).

And through all of it, there is a particular ridiculousness and in-fighting:

General John Clavering, Philip Francis and George Monson–arrived in Calcutta in October 1774, tensions arose. Instead of the 21-gun salute they were expecting, Hastings had organised only 17 cannon to fire as they landed (126).

There is the spectre of Edmund Burke arguing for the Indian people in the trial of Governor Warren Hastings — and I do love that he was brought to trial. I also appreciate this in Burke:

‘Rather than viewing history as a civilisational contest between primitive and progressive nations, Burke believed that each society had its own intrinsic value, which should not be sacrificed to the interests of profit or power (141)

But I haven’t even started on the account of China yet, the stealing of their secrets of tea production, the enforced opium trade through war and smuggling. And slowly the EIC was losing its corporate character, though none of its greed.

Military victory alone was insufficient to restore British fortunes in India. A new regime had to be introduced to confront the extreme oddities created by a sharehold-owned corporation ruling over tens of millions of people. The reforms of the 1770s and 1780s had punctured the Company’s autonomy as a business, and the 1784 India Act had introduced a two-tier system — a ‘double government’ — with the Company maintaining a facade of authority, behind which the state pulled the strings through the Board of Control (173).

If anything good can be said of them it was that they were entirely secular, but with the increased blending of public and private interests this was to change. Driven through by Wilberforce:

After years of campaigning, Wilberforce and others managed to include in the 1813 charter Act provisions for the establihsmnet of a Church of England bishopric in India, as well as the removal of the Company’s longstanding ban on missionary activity (182).

These changes solidified by the need for military force after the uprising of 1857:

When the company retook Kanpur…where rebel troops had slaughtered European women and children, captured sepoys were made to lick the blood from the floors before being hanged. Summary executions became the norm. According to one officer, “we hold court-martials on horseback, and every nigger we meet with we either string up or shoot.” The Company’s recapture of Delhi was followed by systematic sacking, and the surviving inhabitants were tured out of its gates to starve (195).

Robins later mentions the Company’s practice of blasting captured rebels from cannons as lampooned in a cartoon in Punch. Such caricatures only work utilising common knowledge, and it is not mocking the practice itself, rather the Company’s bungling and mismanagement and corruption. This is the brutal experience of conquest and Empire that goes unspoken by Colonel Pargiter in Virginia Woolf’s The Years. I wonder where else it lurks, all the places I never imagined from the ways in which history and literature are taught so as to hide it.

But thus we come to the end of the EIC as company, and onto India as part of the British Empire. Robins states:

The Company is often regarded as an inevitable stepping-stone to the British Raj. Instead, the British Empire in India is better thought of as the product of the Company’s failure (196).

A key inversion I think, but I am not sure what else I think about it, what it might mean for how Empire is both narrated and understood. I don’t know enough yet. I will ponder. By 1858 the Company is done, the Crown has negotiated a long process to buy out stock in a structured deal that makes sure no one loses money.

Given their record, that is quite disgusting. Given the way this deal was financed even more so. Surely the EIC was not quite the bungler it appears.

Writing in 1908, Romesh Chander Dutt was outraged at the way in which the people of India had not only supplied the troops for their own conquest, financed the Company’s acquisition of the subcontinent through heavy taxation, but had also paid for the Company’s nationalisation. “And the Indian people are virtually paying dividends to this day,” he wrote, “on the stock on an extinct Company in the shape of interest on Debt.” (198)

And the key lessons Robins would have us take away?

From this continual metamorphosis, four facets emerge most clearly for our times: the Company as entrepreneur, its role as a revolutionary force in world affairs, its tendency to imperial dominion and the struggle to make it accountable for its actions (201)

For me it is all this, but also the efforts to control the Company and call it to account, how Burke exposed the weakness of Marxism in its wholesale buying in of social evolution and the march of progress, the attempts at uprising both in England and India, and finding out about this marvelous creation that I shall have to go and see as soon as possible at the V&A:

2006ah4175_tipus_tiger

Their website describes it as:

‘Tipu’s Tiger’, a carved and lacquered wooden semi-automaton in the shape of a tiger mauling a man, Mysore, India, about 1793. Museum no 2545 (IS).

But the tiger is not just mauling any man. It is a European man, expressing the hatred of the EIC by the Sultan of Mysore, who fell in battle against them. This was part of the spoils, which is why I can go to the V&A and see it, as the EIC museum in Leadenhall Street is no more. I hate that it has been looted, yet it is a most visceral reminder of the simple fact that Empire was not appreciated, did not bring civilisation, did not help the Indian people.

I wonder if people see it that way? Just as I wonder what effect removing the statue to Robert Clive from Whitehall would be as Robins argues for — something I would definitely like to try and see. They certainly had an impact on the fabric of London itself — there is a nice section on that at the end of the book — or better said, how much of that impact has been erased. But the natural world was changed forever by the EIC both in India and its other colonies, the immense wealth of India funded the changing monumentality of country houses and gardens, the profit driven import/export business shaped the lives of the most desperate of London’s poor, particularly the weavers and the dockers. There is so much more to explore here…

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